Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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27 Kislev 5766 - December 28, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

In These Days, In These Times
Pre-Chanuka reflections by Dan Neuman

Most of the Chanuka stories you'll probably be reading this year were written either shortly before the chag, or shortly after last year's. This is not one of those stories. This story is being written a good month and a half before Chanuka. Why now? Because most truly meaningful experiences require a period of personal preparation. The Yomim Noraim have this period practically mandated by halochoh. Pesach features at least thirty days, if not some months, of gradually cleaning the chometz from our homes and souls. Succos involves the clumsy construction of a temporary structures to replace the sturdy homes built by qualified non- Jewish labor in which we usually live. But Chanuka's preparation period often begins just a few days before, when I purchase a bottle of fine olive oil and a not- so-fine aluminum-molding menorah. You know the ones.

I'm beginning my Chanuka preparation now because it's about a month into the winter zman, and the real meaning of Chanuka is gradually beginning to make itself apparent. I'll explain. Winter zman is not easy. It's the longest of the year and by the time you read this, my pale complexion will have faded to an eerie green. The sun sets increasingly early. On a good day, you can only reasonably expect 45 minutes of actual exposure to it, and that's if you're a slow walker.

Then there's the matter of how to distinguish your black plastic umbrella from the other 4,000 black plastic umbrellas in the coatroom. Everyone has their own system. I have one clever friend who says he achieves this by not owning one. I said he was clever, not practical. I use a torn-off strip of labeled notebook paper preserved beneath a layer of clear packing tape. It's not exactly my style, but there's something beautifully utilitarian about it. So far, it's kept my umbrella where it belongs, that is, above my head. Many prefer the colorful stickers normally used on gemoras, and I imagine that works too.

The same challenge exists for raincoats, jackets and of course, hats. My friend Yitz once found a big wad of cash in his jacket after leaving it in the yeshiva coatroom. He returned to the coat room, found the exact same jacket from the exact same company and left a note in it for the money's [probable] real owner.

Sometimes I think it would just be more efficient if we developed a communal system in which hats and jackets would all be returned to size-specific coat racks and you could just take the first one that comes to hand. I know this isn't such a novel idea but I don't see any reason why it shouldn't work. I once heard a certain Mizrachi relative of mine ask his yeshivish nephew how, indeed, "can you tell the difference between your hat, and the rest of them?" "Oh, we just take whichever one's on top." Everyone should have cousins like mine.

Coming into yeshiva in the morning, one can get to feeling a little out-of-body. You slept five hours last night and now you're walking down the hallway towards someone who also did and who's wearing exactly the same thing as you, with the same umbrella, and the same expression. Just as you've started to figure out that you're you and he's him, and not vice-versa, you brush past him and spill your coffee. Of course, there's a method to the madness. All the uniformity works to create a sort of understated group cohesiveness. Every group that has a shared goal has a uniform. The Post Office. The Marines. Yeshivas Mir. At times, a long winter zman can feel like a war, as can yeshiva in general. It's a war against outside evil and a war against inner weakness. There are advances and setbacks, victories and defeats. You need to jointly maintain an incredibly rigorous schedule, and the minimum degree of wellbeing required to make it all possible. You come home most nights frozen, soaked, exhausted and smiling that half insane smile your wife is just learning not to be afraid of. You believe your efforts will pay off but the advancement is slow. So slow, that a person can almost get discouraged. This is where Chanuka comes in.

Yovon certainly lost the battle, but the war is still being fought. It is today, as it was then; a spiritual and intellectual attack. The Greek Empire may be but a memory, but their tradition is alive and well on liberal university campuses throughout the world. They are the students of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher after whom the term apikorus was coined. They're big, organized, incredibly well funded and ferociously devoted to their dogma. They're also amazingly influential over the moral direction the overall society takes. All this, combined with the fact that even the largest yeshiva on earth is roughly the size of a petite community college, is nothing short of terrifying. When you think about it, we're still a group of outnumbered renegades, and it's a bigger miracle than ever that we persist.

As the longest zman of the year, winter holds potential that no two contiguous zmanim could ever rival. The most successful campaigns are those waged undauntedly and without interruption. The culmination of the learning week is night seder on Thursdays. This often lasts into the early morning.

Friday is spent recovering and preparing for Shabbos. Shabbos is spent enjoying precious free time with your family. Then it all starts again. Every week is a magical cycle of growth, rest and renewal, but after a while they can take on a monotonous undertone, and it can look as if the advance is languishing. Then, out of the darkness, comes Chanuka, a reminder that it can, and actually has, been won.

This year, when I pour the oil and light the menorah, I will look across the street at the glowing windows of my neighbors and try to receive the message I'm being sent. As dark as the winter may look, it's not as bad as what the enemy would like. Pirsumei Nisa is not just about remembering the miracles that were done for us so long ago, it's about recognizing the struggle in which we are all still very much entrenched and the miracles that are happening right now.

What makes both the intellectual and social struggle possible is the sacrifice of thousands of kollel families who directly trade materialism for their avodoh, on a daily basis. The Lexus for the bus. The designer suit for something called Bagir. The steak for the mysterious grey tofu wads they serve in yeshiva. Yes, they're almost as bad as they sound, but I dare say it's worth it. You learn all day. It's the final frontier of true scholarly greatness, truth and purity and you're a part of it. You're part of the revolution.

I've been accused of romanticizing the whole thing, but everyone should have something they romanticize, and since this is what I'm spending most of my life's energy on at the moment, I think I have a right. I imagine that if I were picking olives instead of learning in kollel, I would figure out how that is really the fight against Greek culture, which, by the way, I imagine it could be. But it really is pretty stirring.

At about nine fifteen, when the yeshiva buses unload their fare on Shmuel Hanovi, there is what can only be described as what looks like a uniformed militia marching into battle, which, in a sense, it is.


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